Let me tell you a story about a little boy no more than eight. He was an ordinary lad by all accounts. The boy was smart and mischievous as all other boys are at that age. He went to bed when he was told, ate all his greens off his plate during dinner and most importantly, he had parents who adored him.
However, like all stories, this boy’s doesn’t have a happy ending.
As the boy grew older he stayed up later than normal, he pushed the vegetables off his plate into the gaping maw of the rubbish bin and his parents, who were now living separately, were finding less and less time to shower him with adoration.
Heartbroken and dejected, he wandered the streets looking for salvation and comfort away from the constant letdowns and disappointments that awoke him each morning and tucked him in each night.
As he walked, the walls which held him up began to transform into a mesh of pastel colours, dotted and course like the panels of a comic book. Tripping and lurching forward from the despair that cloaked his mind, he fell face first into a puddle of muck and filth.
As he pushed himself up from the sludge, he saw in front of him the silhouette of a boy sitting on the pavement with his head bent down.
The boy wasn’t much older than he was. From a distance, he could see the boy’s light grey tweed jacket. His face however was obscured by the shadows cast down around him.
He stood up onto scuffed knees to take a better look at the other boy. Two chalk outlines were drawn by the boy’s feet as placards of numbers were placed on separate objects littering the area. Two of which were a string of pearls and a gun.
The longer he stared, the more he felt a similarity with the boy. He saw acceptance at the sight of the boy as he too looked as lonely as he did and as crestfallen and destroyed as he felt. However, something about the boy and his shuddering in this foreboding alley behind the theater on park row that somehow gave him comfort.
“Master Bruce?” a voice from the darkness called out.
“There there, sir, there there,” the voice said reassuringly.
The pastel walls became distorted and eventually melted into the darkness along with the image of the boy and the tall adult figure in a bowler hat carrying an umbrella.
He turned away and stumbled out of crime alley, a place he would revisit soon enough.
Lying on his bed that night, he closed the comic he was reading. “Detective Comics,” he read aloud, the words barely a whisper. Not his favourite, he thought, no, for there were far too many to name.
But in that night, with the comic clutched tightly against his chest, he found comfort against the harsh winds outside and the loud bickering that constantly accompanied his parents whenever they were under the same roof.
He couldn’t remember the first Batman comic he read, but he remembers all those times he stole one of his mother’s batik sarongs, tied it around his neck like a makeshift cowl and clambered up on the armrest of the sofa, peering down at the rattan mat, imagining himself to be the caped crusader crouching atop the head of a stone gargoyle as it jutted out over the city of Gotham, his city.
Yet he was far from his city. Far from the Gotham City Police Department, far from the three bridges nicknamed The Gates and far, far away from Wayne Manor.
His family betrayed him, as did his friends. Soon, even his comics, graphic novels and other Batman related paraphernalia and memorabilia were taken away from him and stowed away into some unknown corner of the house, away from the boy’s trembling fingers and desperate pleas for help.
The years grew darker for the boy as his body was transfigured by the countless bouts of depressions and social anxieties. His mind became warped by the images of desolation and bleakness that constantly surrounded him. The comics became a distant memory.
Rarely did he spend time outside his home, preferring to waste his days away within the confines of his bedroom, allowing the four walls to reverberate the madness within him.
One day, as he was lying on his bed staring up at his stark white ceiling, he heard whispering. Not much louder than the thoughts which had become his only company, he followed the sounds. It led him to the empty space under the stairs.
The space was nothing more than a cupboard, long and winding opening up wide and ending in a small cubbyhole where the stairs began. As he placed his hands on the walls around him, in the lightless space he felt the surface of the walls change. From the rocky unpainted exterior it became a smooth glaze, cool to the touch.
As he ventured further into the tunnel he came upon a hall big enough for a small party or a large gathering. There, deep in the shadows of the hall, he saw a high backed chair. A table was placed next to it with a bell resting on its smooth teak finish.
The whispering became louder as he kept staring at the lone figure sitting in the chair.
“All I need to do is ring this bell and Alfred will come,” the figure said, his clothes torn and his face smeared with blood.
The boy didn’t recognize the man in the chair. He thought the man was talking to him, but the man’s lips never moved and his voice was somewhat like an echo. He knew he should feel fear. Terror should be grasping his bones right then but all he felt was comfort. The feeling of acceptance he experienced a long time ago.
As he stood there, gaze transfixed at the man’s form illuminated by the moonlight that shone in through the tall pane glass windows, the empty atmosphere was broken by the sound of a crash as glass rained down around them.
On the hearth was a bat, flapping helplessly and still shrieking menacingly. The man sat there for a while staring at the form that came out of the night, the stuff that nightmares were made of. His muttering was indiscernible as he stood for a moment, still staring at the limp form of the creature. He looked past the animal on the rug to somewhere beyond the sight of any normal man. He then walked away with strides that denoted determination and purpose. The man had found what he was looking for and the boy knew he should do the same.
Walking out of the space under the stairs, the boy stole a glance back at the hall yet saw only darkness. He dragged out a musty box covered in cobwebs and found what he had grown to forget. Now there was an overwhelming emotion that filled the boy as he was armed with a newfound resolution. That he, like the man, would hone his mind and body and adopt an image, one that would become his shield against this world. He ripped himself free of the optimism and the hope he had for those around him and focused only on his own survival. He would nurture his mind, he thought, to be a weapon against this world that frequently disappointed him.
Again, the years replaced themselves and what was a boy became a man. Yet he had never stopped acuminating his mind, body and soul. He cleansed his spirit of the guilt and pain he felt from the actions of others. He became a well-oiled machine. But that’s the only thing he ever was. A machine.
He was shunned, from the love people had to offer and the warmth of affection he so dearly craved. He questioned the outcome of his metamorphosis. He searched for comfort from the world, yet he found only isolation and despair.
“A quiet night tonight,” he mused alone in his car in an effort to search for answers.
He needed the emptiness to pulsate within his ears to allow himself enough space to think yet at the same time not leave him within the confines of his own mind. As he turned a corner, the roads again transformed themselves into a mesh of colors, gloomy and forlorn much like the colors he found himself staring at all those years ago in the space under the stairs. He then found himself within a familiar stretch of road. Looking up to read the street signs, only graffiti greeted the man as more than a few sets of eyes followed his car and more still shirked back into the shadows.
“Welcome to Crime Alley,” a large spray-painted wall read. He shouldn’t be here, he thought.
Just then as his eyes were still glued to the skyline, he saw two figures jumping from the rooftops. One was large, built like a truck but moving with the grace of one that had been dipped in mercury, while the other was much more slender, with the acrobatic skills of a trapeze artist who had spent her life among tightropes and safety nets. They dashed in mid-air in an attempt to outrun each other, their forms like silk gliding through fingers.
Suddenly, without notice, the larger figure plummeted to the ground below. The fall must have been from 10 storeys high with no chance of a quick recovery.
With a resounding crash the figure fell on the hard concrete below, right into Crime Alley, where the scourge of Gotham hid from the prying eyes of Lady Justice.
The man got out of the car. A foolish errand, he thought as he made his way to the scene of the fall. He climbed onto the railing of a nearby theater and peeked out over the zinc sheet that separated the alley and the well-lit street he currently stood in. He prayed the shadows would keep to themselves.
The fallen figure was quiet and lifeless. He knew this creature, this man from long ago. He remembered how he used to emulate him, copy him. This was his hero. Yet looking at him now, lying broken and bleeding among the rats and murderers that inhabited Crime Alley, he couldn’t help but feel ashamed — hurt almost, that his hero wouldn’t be able to pick himself up off the ground as he had taught him to do so many times before.
It was then he saw the shadows emerging from the darkness brandishing guns and crowbars and all other items that were meant to make themselves look menacing.
He had seen enough from the safety of his zinc wall. He climbed down and quickly grabbed a piece of wood. As he was contemplating his actions, a motorcycle engine roared past him and the blurred figure of a man in black and blue jumped off. It was a blur of fists, kicks and Escrima sticks as the sleek figure fended off the attackers from the prone body of the man on the ground, his attacks hard and controlled. Coupled with the acrobatic skills of a gymnast, the man parried and swerved around a thrown fist and leaped over his assailant to bury his flying form into the body of another.
The man in black and blue was good, he had to admit. When all the bodies had hit the ground, he picked the body of the fallen man up and placed it inside the rocket-propelled car that had skid to a halt in front of the pair mere seconds ago. The man in black and blue was talking to someone but he couldn’t tell who.
“Friends of his,” he assumed. Funny. He thought the man only had a sidekick; Robin was it?
He paused and studied the situation longer. Was this what it felt like to be loved and respected and admired? With the people risking their lives for you while you lay on the ground tormented by the defeat you faced at the hands of gravity? Your city betrayed you, as should everyone else. Yet, that man, Nightwing he was called, as well as the person he was talking to, they all came to his aid.
“Still a boy,” he said of himself. How could anyone go through life without companionship? Without people out there to catch us when we fall?
He walked shakily back to his car. He stopped. Apparently, amid all the excitement, it seemed his car had been stolen.
He turned and walked down the street hoping the shadows had had enough excitement for one night and would leave him be during the long walk back home.
As he walked, he thought about the events that had only moments ago transpired.
How many friends did Batman have now? He named them one by one.
“Red Robin, Robin, Oracle, Azrael, Commissioner Gordon, Oracle’s Birds of Prey, the Justice League, Knight and Squire and at one point Harvey Dent.” And those were only the ones he could remember off the top of his head.
Apparently his hero had been busy amassing an army — no, not an army — friends and companions. He understood now that companionship in a world as austere and desolate as this would be a welcome addition.
“Still a boy,” he thought, his new resolution concrete. He knew what needed to be done.
More than 70 years since the day Batman came out in Detective Comics #27, Christopher Nolan brought his third and final installment of the Batman franchise to the silver screen. Dubbed The Dark Knight Rises, it brought the small little boy back to those days on his sofa chair arm, looking down at the citizens of Gotham.
As the cool night breeze whipped itself about his face, he remembered all those times he sat on the roof outside his window, looking up at the clouds, sarong whipping about him in a frenzy by the warm summer breeze, imagining what other adventures Batman was having at that moment.
He walked out of the theater hand-in-hand with the person he loved, making his way through the crowds of people milling about to reach theirs. He knew now that he came away from that second meeting with Batman’s alter ego with false conceptions of heroism. He believed that Bruce Wayne had made the same mistake too.
It was a comforting notion that you can never truly survive the world with just yourself and your beliefs to keep you company, no matter how strong your will is.
To him, Batman was more than a man, more than a cape and cowl. The caped crusader was a symbol. A constant presence in his life that protected him from all the nightmares he confronted, both asleep and awake.
If you asked the boy about comfort, this was it. No more a boy, yet holding onto the very symbol that raised him into a man. Batman was so much more than a franchise or a bimonthly 12-page comic book. It was a symbol given to those who needed something to hold on to during those caliginous nights where it always lacked the light.
While their night terrors tormented them, it was the soft swishing of the curtains they thought to be the cape of a man moving in the night that put them to sleep and comforted them as they kept their eyes closed.
Driving home that night after the movie, he couldn’t help but keep his eyes peeled on the road. Who knew, maybe the roar of a five-cylinder engine packing 1,700 horsepower as it shot down the highway would make an appearance. He imagined the fins sitting atop the fully tinted cockpit steadying the vehicle while the rocket propulsion launched it forwards down the stretch of dirt road that led from the bat cave across the Alan Wayne bridge into Gotham City.
Blink and you might miss it.
Reporter by day and shiisha connoisseur by night, Haziq is a Batman fanboy with an affinity for Mountain Dew and M&M’s. A 7 Eleven regular, you can follow him via his Twitter profile @ZiqqyZiqqy
Feature image is ‘Tikkakoski, Gotham City’ by Jaro Larnos.